Nicole Blades

19 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: October 2017

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Daniel Ford: You can tell from the opening lines of The Last Ballad that Wiley Cash had this story in his bones. Based on true events, the novel tells the story of a fateful (and deadly) mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. Shifting between the perspectives of all those involved, Cash explores themes that are as alive today as they were in the 1910s.

On a recent podcast episode, Cash said he was chasing Ella May’s ghost the entire time he was writing the novel. That passion and research led to one of the most unforgettable and empathetic main characters you’ll read in fiction this year. If the book only focused on her, it still would have been great, but, to Cash’s credit, May’s supporting cast is just as finely drawn.

The Last Ballad is a special book, one that I think readers will fall in love with. Cash does the Southern storytelling tradition proud, and he adds even more to the remarkable fiction coming out of that region in the last couple of years.

Sean Tuohy: In the summer of 1987, a killer stalked the streets of New Bedford, Mass. He targeted young women who were addicts. He preyed on them, killed them, and left on the side of the road. In Boyle’s riveting narrative, the killer, a lurking, sinister figure, is left in the background. The author focuses on the victims, their family members, and the town itself. Boyle writes with a passion that shines in each passage, and she shares the pain of the victims.

Have You Met Nora? by Nicole Blades

Daniel: One day I’ll get to tell you my reaction to the final scenes of Nicole Blades’ cheeky and engrossing novel Have You Met Nora? Just know it made Blades “LMAO” in an email chain. Doesn’t get much better for a reader (or writer)!

We’ve come to expect great fiction out of Blades, and this novel is no exception. Have You Met Nora? (out Oct. 31) features a freight train plot and well crafted characters who deliver lines of sassy dialogue as if they were lightning strikes. Issues of identity, race, friendship, and family are all explored without beating you over the head with a blunt instrument. Blades gets bonus points for using punctuation in her title! 

bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Daniel: I didn’t realize the recent paperback release of Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone features 40 more pages of poetry not included in the original 2014 release until after I finished the collection in roughly one sitting. It says something about Daley-Ward’s talent that a publisher signed off on an expanded edition given today’s publishing market! What’s interesting is that none of these poems feel added on or misplaced (I can’t even imagine the process involved in narrowing them down for the first launch). The collection’s title is apt considering that each poem seems to be stripped down to only its essential components, reveling in their devastatingly honest and personal nature. There’s one section of a poem called “things it can take twenty years and a bad liver to work out” that could serve as a mission statement for most creative types:

There are parts of you
that want sadness.
Find them out. Ask them why.

Indeed.   

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Daniel: Gabriel Tallent's debut contains gut punches for days and will make you slam it down more much often than you anticipated. However, you'll keep picking up, sucking the marrow out of Tallent's prose. Turtle Alveston is a heroine for the ages, and the author gets inside her head in a way you won't find in any other fiction. My Absolute Darling also features one of the sweetest and well-earned denouements I've ever read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Gary Almeter: I read this book immediately after Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling (see above). Sing, Unburied, Sing is also about a child, in this case, 13-year-old Jojo, let down and abused by parents. Jojo is a resilient and caring young man; his wisdom beyond his years is due in large measure to the patience of his grandfather, Pop, with whom he and his 3-year-old sister Michaela live, and the fact that he is tasked with caring for Michaela whenever their mother leaves them for days at a time. Jojo's white father, Michael, is at Parchman prison, the same prison Pop spent time in decades ago.

The whole book is teeming with ghosts. Leonie's brother was murdered and haunts her whenever she gets high; the rural Mississippi setting is haunted by the oppressive and omnipresent legacy of racism; Pop had a friend at Parchman prison whose memory stays with him. Woven into these ghost stories is a road trip to Parchman to retrieve Michael upon his release. The journey becomes a nightmare as everyone learns that there are absences that can never really be filled and ghosts that can never be outrun. Jojo perseveres nonetheless.

Read Adam Vitcavage's  interview with Jesmyn Ward .

Read Adam Vitcavage's interview with Jesmyn Ward.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

Sean: Ronald Balson does not waste any time. He quickly pulls the reader into the story and allows his characters to build over the course of the story until they are almost too real. After a Holocaust survivor accuses one of the city's wealthiest men of being a Nazi, it’s up to a burned out lawyer to find the truth. Rich in history, Once We Were Brothers is a wonderful tale.

Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett

Daniel: Kellye Garrett's debut novel Hollywood Homicide is such a fun read. In Dayna Anderson, Garrett has created a sassy, determined, and sometimes confused heroine that will be entertaining readers for plenty of beach "Days" to come. Every supporting character is a gem, and the plot moves along like a binge-worthy TV dramedy. Garrett's voice is a welcome breath of fresh air, and I can't wait to see what it has to say next.

Daniel: Vanessa Grigoriadis' distinct voice and empathetic, curious reporting are used so well throughout Blurred Lines, a book that delves into the myriad issues surrounding campus rape in the United States. Grigoriadis tackles everything from "Mattress Girl" to Rolling Stone's errant reporting during the University of Virginia rape controversy and the new age of consent to Donald Trump. The author/journalist interviewed hundreds of people, including students, parents, administrators, lawyers, and advocates, and that dogged reporting led to an even-tempered (though not unemotional) narrative our polarized electorate desperately needs.

One of the most refreshing things about Grigoriadis' work here is her ability to include comments, research, observations, and facts that questioned her beliefs or hypotheses. She didn’t pretend to have all the answers or discard information because it didn’t fit into a concrete mold she decided on long before writing the book. Journalism like this is of the utmost importance because of our current political climate. Read this book and recommend it to others.

Daniel: There’s a reason Kat Howard is one of our favorite authors (check out her “Author’s Corner” below). She delivers opening lines like the ones found in her new novel An Unkindness of Magicians.

The young woman cut through the crowded New York sidewalk like a knife. Tall in her red-soled stilettos, black clothing, that clung to her like smoke, red-tipped black hair sharp and angular around her face. She looked like the kind of woman people would stop for, stare at, notice.

None of them did.

Yeah, we can get down with that. What we’ve read so far of An Unkindness of Magicians proves why Howard has amassed the following she has. This fantasy thriller, which features competing magicians fighting to preserve (or maybe it’s to demolish) the magical system that binds the world, is the perfect read headed into the Halloween season.

Dreamfield by Ethan Bryan

Daniel: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear reading fellow 50/50 Press author Ethan Bryan's debut novel. I think Sid Sanford and his main character “Ethan” would get along just fine. Ethan finds himself transported back to high school, where he has a chance to relive his dream of being a star baseball player (yes, Bryan made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). Part “Field of Dreams,” part “The Rookie,” Dreamfield is a fun meditation on time, religion, family, and baseball.  

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks

Daniel: There is officially no limit to Tom Hanks’ talent. In his debut short story collection (out Oct. 17), the actor brings all of the traits that define him on the silver screen: honesty, irreverence, humor, and unending empathy and passion. Be warned, this is absolutely one of those collections that will cause you to stay up way past your bedtime and mutter, “Okay, just one more.” If these are the types of stories we can expect from Hanks and his typewriter in the future, we’re all very lucky readers.

Author’s Corner

By Kat Howard, author of An Unkindness of Magicians

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

I try to always have one book of poetry that I’m reading. This is the sort of collection that I’ll turn to again and again. Smith’s writing is clear-eyed, precise, and full of beauty. It gives me hope.

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

One of my very favorite books, and a quintessential October novel. Haunted and full of melancholy, it is also gorgeously written. I mean, it’s Bradbury.

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

The first of the completed Metamorphoses trilogy, it’s myth and Seattle and brilliant and a book I’ve reread at least once a year since it came out.

From the To Be Read pile:

Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia

Okay, so maybe Baba Yaga doesn’t spring immediately to mind as the sort of person you’d go to for life advice. But I loved this column when it ran on The Hairpin, and I’m really looking forward to picking this up.

Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

Ben’s first collection, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day, was a book I absolutely adored. He writes strange tiny gems of things, and I can’t wait to see what he’s done here.

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Okay, no one needs me to tell you to read this collection, because it is winning all the awards, getting rave reviews, and is one of the most buzzed about books of the year. If you’ve ever read Machado’s writing, you know the praise is deserved. If not, you are in for a treat.

#NovelClass

Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher.

17 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: March 2017

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

Setting Free the Kites by Alex George

Daniel Ford: Like Sean Tuohy, I have a soft spot for coming-of-age tales. They can leave a lasting impression on a reader if done well, and Setting Free the Kites is a shining example. I finished the novel in two sittings. I just couldn’t get enough of it, even when it was slamming my heart up against the wall.

The novel, which is set in a small town in Maine, opens with Robert Carter getting the snot kicked out of him by his nemesis. Nathan Tilly, the new kid in town, puts the ogre in his place, and then, naturally, becomes Robert’s best friend. Rather than put these two through the normal paces of adolescent life, George ups the ante by having the pair deal with one tragedy after another. Nathan’s father, who shares the same joie de vivre as his son, falls to his death early in the novel, and Robert’s brother slowly wastes away from degenerative muscular dystrophy.

However, while the novel squeezes a reader’s heart in a half a million ways, it never completely breaks it. There’s this underlying optimism and hopefulness that bubbles up. Whether rocking out to Liam’s beloved rock ‘n’ roll vinyls or getting the “it girl” to notice them at their job at Robert’s father’s amusement park, these two incredibly well crafted characters find joy in even the darkest corners. (But rest assured, you’ll be weeping in buckets by the end. Trust me, don’t be a hero, buy extra tissues.)

Like any worthy coming-of-age story, there isn’t one character you fall completely in love with. There are multiple characters you root for whether or not you’d want to be in same room with them for more than five minutes. Setting Free the Kites is a tender, funny, and passionate read, and I plan to follow George’s work for years to come.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Daniel: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer clocked in at #2 on our “Best Books of 2016” list (oh yeah, and won a Pulitzer Prize). The Refugees, a short story collection, is almost assured a spot on our 2017 list.

Set in both Vietnam and the United States, the eight stories (written over a period of 20 years) in this collection empathetically and honestly depict the global immigrant experience. Through an unforgettable cast of characters, Nguyen explores homosexuality, old age, healthcare, family, friendship, love, marriage, parenthood, and identity.

Nguyen’s prose makes one think of Alice Munro (featured in Nicole Blade’s “Author’s Corner” below) because of its earthiness and its ability to craft profound revelations out of the most ordinary of lives. He is an essential voice in these troubled political times.  

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Stephanie Schaefer: In an era where almost 40 percent of young adults live with their parents, student loan debt is at an all-time high, and more and more people are delaying marriage—or rejecting the union altogether—it makes sense for a modern coming-of-age novel to focus on a 39-year-old protagonist. 

Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up offers an un-sugarcoated commentary on adulthood in the 21st century. Written from the perspective of Andrea Bern, a flawed, almost-40, New York City dweller with as much baggage as JFK Airport, the novel deals with issues including addiction, depression, terminal illness, and what it means to be a woman who refuses to follow the status quo.

I enjoyed Attenberg’s eloquent writing style and her ability to be both raw and poignant at the same time. Essentially, All Grown Up reads like a grittier “Sex and the City”—that is if Carrie Bradshaw traded her shoe addiction for alcoholism, and if instead of Mr. Big she craved a series of one-night-stands in order to fill a void stemming from a broken childhood. 

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Daniel: Boy, can Elliot Ackerman write. His debut novel, Green on Blue, was one of our favorite reads of 2015, and left us wanting so much more from the author. Ackerman’s sophomore novel, Dark at the Crossing, didn’t disappoint, and features a novelist fully growing into his literary powers.

The book centers on Haris Abadi, a wayward Arab American, who is attempting to cross the Turkish border into Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As the title suggests, things don’t go according to plan (even though Abadi doesn’t have much of a plan to begin with). He finds shelter with a troubled and broken Syrian couple, Amir and his wife Daphne, and becomes embroiled in their complex relationship. All three are searching for something; something that beckons from beyond a border they struggle to cross (both metaphorically and physically).

Ackerman’s gift for prose and dialogue are on full display. He crafts a brutal love story and also beautifully depicts a violent part of the world largely misunderstood by those on the outside of the battle lines. Much like Green on Blue, Dark at the Crossing is a must read for anyone attempting to further their understanding of the Middle East, as well as our shared humanity.   

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

Daniel: Cancel all your plans before you sit down to read Dwayne Alexander Smith’s exceptional thriller Forty Acres. It’s constantly surprising, and you will not want to put it down once the pages start turning.

After up-and-coming attorney Martin Grey scores a surprise legal victory over a much more heralded rival, he’s invited to an exclusive club by some of the most prominent members of the black community. Grey finds himself on a private jet headed to an undisclosed hideaway founded by an eccentric, shadowy figure. Instead of nature hikes and burly masseuses, Grey discovers something far more insidious. Within the complex, white men and women are enslaved, bending to their black “masters” every whim and desire. The young, idealistic lawyer has to grapple with his racial identity, his country’s violent racial past (and present), and the true nature of power. And in true thriller fashion, his life, and that of his equally tenacious wife, depends on his finding answers as fast as humanly possible.  

Smith’s novel has trace DNA from Nelson DeMille’s The Charm School and constantly surprises. It asks big questions that readers will chew on long after the novel finally unshackles them.

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

Adam Vitcavage: Daniel Magariel’s debut novel (out March 14) is an emotionally packed exploration into family, negligence, and addiction. It’s only around 170 pages, but is still able to pack in so much ethos because of the writer’s sense of urgency. An unnamed 12-year-old boy narrates the novel, and we discover he and his older brother live with their father. After a bitter divorce—dubbed “the war” by the father—the trio heads to New Mexico for a fresh start. The happiness fades when violence and drug addiction begin to surface. Magariel’s plot and prose make this a memorable book that will leave you emotionally numb well after the last page is finished.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Daniel: What kind of life can be lived in a war zone? Can new love find a spark? Can familial love sustain? What would one give up to walk through a door leading to escape? What life can be lived on the other side? 

These are the questions Mohsin Hamid attempts to answer in his incredibly moving, romantic, tender, and violent novel Exit West (out March 7). His narrative centers on two of the more original characters you’ll find in today’s fiction. Saeed, a sensitive and religious young man backed by a supportive family, and Nadia, a headstrong, independent woman who broke free from her family to establish an independent life on her own terms, kindle a romance that becomes more and more complicated as their country descends further and further into armed conflict. Their bond is tested and redefined when they are offered a chance at escape, and an entirely new story, one just as fraught and questioning, begins. 

This all sounds heavy, and it is, but Hamid tells the tale with such a deft and warm hand that your heart swells much more than it breaks. There are several laugh-out-loud moments that remind you that humor and love exist even when surrounded by humanity’s worst instincts. Exit West is a special novel, one that should be celebrated and embraced by readers of all nationalities, races, and creeds. 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Adam: The premise of Dan Chaon’s third novel (out March 7) is titillating and enthralling. Thirty years ago, a boy named Dustin told police his adoptive brother Rusty was behind the massacre of their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, Dustin is a physiologist and Rusty has been exonerated by DNA evidence. Their two lives have been defined by the murders and are about to collide again. What Chaon does is take this dark, twisted story, and adds subtle twists to the narratives he unfolds with precision. The author manipulates how we are fed information: he uses traditional forms like flashback, but also allows one narrative to be told through first-, second- and third-person points of view. With Ill Will, Chaon has mastered the psychological thriller novel.

The Weight of This World by David Joy

Daniel: As you may already know, author David Joy is a Writer’s Bone favorite. He’s on our masthead (his essay “One Place misUnderstood” is not to be missed), we adored his debut novel, Where All the Light Tends to Go, and his Twitter feed is a must-follow. Even if all of that weren’t true (and he wasn’t a fan of Jefferson’s, one of our favorite bourbons), we’d still crow about his beautifully destructive second effort, The Weight of This World (out March 7).

This novel, set once again in the mountains of North Carolina, features Thad Broom, an Afghan war vet, and his best friend Aiden McCall. The pair is bound together by much more than mere friendship, and find out just how strong those ties are after they witness a drug dealer kill himself, leaving behind a pile of drugs and cash. As the two men decide what to do next, Thad’s mother April, deals with her own trauma as she prepares to leave the only home she’s ever known—one scarred by violence and anger.

Joy puts his main characters through hell, but it’s not hell for its own sake. There’s a purpose to every sentence and every line of dialogue Joy writes. He’s searching for answers to deeper truths about violence, trauma, and family; it just so happens that his path to answers tends to lead down the barrel of a gun.

Additionally, without giving anything away, The Weight of This World features one of the best, and most satisfying, endings to a crime fiction novel I’ve ever read. Joy was nominated for an Edgar Award for his first novel, and there’s no doubt in my mind he might find himself walking back home with one this time around. 

Adam: Boris Fishman’s two novels—2014’s A Replacement Life and 2016’s Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo—both landed on The New York Times 100 Notable Books the year they were released. Last year’s Rodeo is about a young Jewish American couple who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. Their adoptive son is obsessed with nature and is almost a wildling. The story unfolds with the couple’s journey to Montana to discover why their son is the way he is. Fishman’s sense of humor is sprinkled through this absurd, but very serious, novel as he explores themes of identity, nature-versus-nurture, and genealogy.

The Shooting by James Boice

Gary Almeter: From its jarring opening sentence to its poignant conclusion, The Shooting fully and unrelentingly immerses the reader in gun culture. It does so in ways large and small, addressing the larger Machiavellian components of our nation's preoccupation with guns and fashioning small narratives of the individuals affected by gun violence. It is an epic story and one of the simplest too.

Three characters—the reclusive erratic scion of a wealthy family, a staunch anti-Second Amendment advocate whose daughter was murdered in a school shooting, and the teenage son of immigrant—all collide following one incident in New York City. The stories of these characters leading up to this moment are engrossing, and the paths these characters take after the incident will challenge what you think you know about America. 

This is one of the best books I have ever read.

Author’s Corner

By Nicole Blades

In honor of Women’s History Month, I decided to keep my “Books You Should Already Own Because Whaaaat Why Haven’t You Read Them Yet?” list limited to women writers. And the good news is, this wasn’t a challenge. The work that women fiction writers have been and continue to put out there is pure fire! Love story? We got you. Thriller? On it. Young Adult charmer? Here you go, buddy. Whatever you have a hankering for, there are long lists of exceptional books written by a woman from which to choose and devour. For me, the work was trying to limit this list to five books. But that’s another story that involves my—ahem—acute bibliosis (just pretend, okay?). Here are five books I’ve read in the last five years that you’ll want to have on your shelf too.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation, this is one of the first that comes to my lips. It’s a love story, but that’s just one of the many rich layers to this novel. It’s also a story about belonging, home, loneliness, and being a black woman in a country that often acts like you’re not there. Plus there’s so much wit and heart here that you’ll find yourself head-back laughing one minute and then shouting “I know, right?!” the next.  But that’s the magic of Adichie. She is so focused on telling rich, real stories that you can see yourself on these pages. And even when you don’t see “you” in the story, the characters are authentic while also being complex and human that you are pulled into their world and perspective. It’s all very captivating.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

It’s a girl-meets-boy story, yes, but there’s nothing typical about it. For starters the girl, Madeline Whittier, is mixed race—African American and Asian. Also, she has a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) that makes her essentially “allergic to the world.” The boy, Olly, is her new neighbor, and their meet-cute happens from behind the glass of their distant bedroom windows. From the first line in, you’ll be rooting for Maddy. You want all good things for her, even though she’s enduring this unlivable, limited life trapped in a virtual bubble. The dialogue is snappy and smart, and the characters and their relationships feel real. Plus, there are these darling illustrations sprinkled throughout the book that add yet another layer of sweetness to this wonderful story.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I read this one last summer knowing that the HBO adaptation was coming in early 2017. And since I’m one of those “gotta read the book first!” types—and I hadn’t been pulled into a dark, buzzy, page-turner mystery since maybe Gone Girl—I picked up the heavy hardcover and jumped right in. I’m happy to say, Big Little Lies was the first book in a long while with a twist that I never saw coming. When I got to the particular page near the end, I literally sat up in my bed with my jaw dropped. Having that “No. Waaaaaaaay!” moment was a real payoff.  It’s gossip and secrets and schadenfreude; all the ingredients for a classic beach read.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Full disclosure: I know Angela in real life. She went to college with my sister. But even if she were a stone-cold stranger, I would still sing this book’s praises. Well-drawn and engrossing—while tackling some pretty heavy topics like mental health and addiction and the 2008 housing crisis as well as the knotted ties that bind a family—The Turner House is poignant, entertaining, heartfelt and haunting. It’s ambitious, but takes such care with the finer details while being beautifully written. A fascinating family saga that almost dares you to put it down. (Don’t take the dare, though. You’ll lose!)

Any Book by Alice Munro

Okay, fine. It’s kind of cheating, but it’s not really because, come on. This is Alice Munro we’re talking about here. Alice Munro, aka Great Fellow Canadian/Master of the Short Story/Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m a loyal fan of Munro and her work. She’s permanently installed at the top of my list of favorite authors, and I’ll often pick up one of her collections at random times through the years to read a short story or two. But for the purposes of staying true to this “five for five” list, I’ll highlight her most recent release, Dear Life. It’s her thirteenth collection, but it’s as sharp and compelling as her first. The stories make the lives of ordinary people extraordinary.  And isn’t that the very definition of what good fiction is? I’ll answer for you: Yes. Now, if you really want to get on my bad side, ask me to choose one of her short stories as my all-time favorite. (I’m already frowning at you now, so don’t bother.)

Nicole Blades’ next book, Have You Met Nora?, will be released Oct. 31. Her latest novel, The Thunder Beneath Us, is available now wherever books and e-books are sold. Catch Nicole and her sister Nailah on “Hey, Sis!,” their brand new podcast about women finding their focus and place in business, art, culture, and life.

Learn more about Blades by visiting her official website, liking her Facebook page, or following her on Twitter @NicoleBlades, Instagram @nicole_blades, and Goodreads. Also read Lindsey Wojcik's interview with the author.  

#NovelClass

In the second installment of #NovelClass, Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Edie Meidav’s Crawl Space.